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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

I’ve already written that state governments shouldn’t get a bailout from Washington.

Today, let’s specifically focus on California, a beautiful state that – as explained in this video – is being ruined by an even-worse-than-average collection of politicians.

This video was produced in 2018, so it goes without saying that California is in even worse shape today, in part because of a coronavirus-caused economic downturn.

But the Golden State also is in trouble because the politicians in Sacramento have been spending like drunken sailors (with apologies to drunken sailors for that unfair comparison).

That’s only part of the problem. California also imposes onerous taxes, an approach that is causing a steady exodus of households and business to states with better policy.

And when you consider other policies, the net result is that the Golden State is ranked only #48 out of 50 for overall economic freedom.

Should this bad track record be rewarded?

Writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Parsky is willing to give a bailout if strings are attached.

California is facing a $54 billion budget deficit… To help address the shortfall, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants billions of federal dollars. Not so fast. Any bailout should come with strings attached. Washington should tie assistance to tax reform… California’s finances are too dependent on the personal income tax, which is the most volatile form of taxation. California’s revenues from personal income taxes amount to about 67% of all state revenues (up from 11% in 1950). Moreover, less than 1% of taxpayers contribute more than 50% of the tax revenue. The result is that when the economy softens and people earn less—or move out of the state—tax revenue plunges. …A survey of California residents showed that 53% of them are considering leaving.

Here’s Mr. Parsky’s specific proposal.

…these developments underscore the need for dramatic tax reform. …the California Legislature created a bipartisan commission, which I chaired… The commission recommended that California reduce its dependence on the personal income tax by…dropping the top rate from 9.3% to 6.5% and reducing or eliminating many deductions. The commission also recommended eliminating the corporate and sales-and-use taxes, replacing them with a broad new “business net receipts tax.” …A few years later, Gov. Jerry Brown and state policy makers did the opposite…they put forward a statewide initiative that raised the top marginal rate to 13.3%, thus making state revenues even more dependent on a volatile tax and California’s income-tax rate the highest in the nation. …there is an opportunity for the Trump administration to link any federal assistance to an overhaul of the way California taxes its residents.

For all intents and purposes, the author wants to extort California into adopting better (or less-worse) tax policy.

And if Trump (being a big spender) decided to bail out the states, it would be good to attach requirements so that there would be a silver lining to that dark cloud.

But here’s a better approach: Tell the politicians in Sacramento that they caused the mess and it’s their responsibility to fix it. Taxpayers elsewhere in America shouldn’t have to cough up cash to keep California from committing suicide.

Especially since it would simply be a matter of time before the Golden State’s politicians reneged on the deal and re-imposed class-warfare tax policy.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this cartoon from Michael Ramirez, is that California is on a downward trajectory and I don’t see any feasible way of reversing the trend.

P.S. Ramirez has a comfortable lead (as of today) in the best-political-cartoonist contest.

P.P.S. Paul Krugman attacked me a few years ago for being pessimistic about California. He was wrong then and he’s even more wrong today.

P.P.P.S. Some leftists in California have advocated for secession. I wonder if they still have that view.

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It doesn’t get as much attention as basket-case nations such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or Cuba, but Argentina is one of the world’s worst-governed nations.

Though the most damning indictment, in my humble opinion, is that Argentina in the late 1940s used to be one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But beginning in 1946 under Juan Peron’s statist presidency (much beloved by Pope Francis for inexplicable reasons), policy shifted to the left and Argentina become one of the world’s least market-oriented nations.

Not surprisingly, the country’s relative living standards then began a steady decline, thus providing us with a painful lesson that rich nations that adopt bad policy don’t remain rich.

Recent history hasn’t made things better. Populist-left governments were in charge from 2003-2015, followed by an ineffective right-reformist government (akin to Nixon-Bush-Trump-style Republicanism) from 2015-2019, and now the left is back in charge.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Argentina has bloated, corrupt, and ineffective government.

Here are some details from a column that wrote last September for Project Syndicate.

Argentina has fallen back into crisis for the simple reason that not enough has changed since the last debacle. …Argentinian authorities succumbed to the same temptation that tripped up their predecessors. In an effort to compensate for slower-than-expected improvements in domestic capacity, they permitted excessive foreign-currency debt, aggravating what economists call the “original sin”: a significant currency mismatch between assets and liabilities, as well as between revenues and debt servicing. …Undeterred by Argentina’s history of chronic volatility and episodic illiquidity – including eight prior defaults – creditors gobbled up as much debt as the country and its companies would issue… The search for higher yields has been encouraged by unusually loose monetary policies… Then there is the IMF, which readily stepped in once again to assist Argentina… So far, Argentina has received $44 billion under the IMF’s largest-ever funding arrangement.

This latest bailout is a classic case of throwing good money after bad, which seems to be the IMF’s primary purpose – especially with regards to Argentina.

Later that same month, Anne Krueger weighed in with another column for the same publication.

Argentina is…chronically overspending and over-regulating until it is forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a new round of treatment. In 2001, the country suffered a major crisis, and…entered into an IMF loan program. But its debt restructuring was messy, and policies to address its underlying structural problems – lowering trade barriers, allowing public-utility prices to rise – were pursued halfheartedly or not at all. …government spending and fiscal deficits began to increase once again. Consolidated public expenditures rose from a low of 22.9% of GDP in 2002 to 30.1% of GDP in 2008, and to 42.2% in 2015. …For an economy as distorted as Argentina’s, there is no medicine that can prevent a period of painful adjustment. …By early 2018, Argentina was in another crisis. …in June 2018 the IMF approved a $50 billion loan program, the largest in the Fund’s history. …The problem, once again, is that the medicine was not strong enough. At the patient’s insistence, the measures were too mild to be effective, and more difficult structural reforms were delayed. …the country needs structural reforms, especially a further reduction in the size of the government sector, starting with pensions. More gradualism will only prolong the pain and allow political opposition to mount.

Ms. Krueger is correct. Only good policy will cure Argentina’s woes.

Sadly, bailouts actually undermine that goal give the country’s awful politicians an excuse to postpone necessary reforms.

Though there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Argentine statism. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out earlier this year that we now has a real-world example of democratic socialism.

…the Nordic nations are “firmly rooted in capitalism and free markets,” wrote Michael Cembalest of JP Morgan Asset Management in a note last summer… The closest Cembalest could find to a true democratic socialist state, at least by his definition, is Argentina, “which has defaulted 7 times since its independence in 1816, which has seen the largest relative standard of living decline in the world since 1900, and which is on the brink of political and economic chaos again in 2019.” …Argentina met most of the following criteria: a) higher personal and corporate tax rates, and higher government spending; b) more worker protections restricting the ability of companies to hire and fire, and less flexibility for companies to set wages based on worker productivity and/or to hire foreign labor; c) more reliance on regulation, more constraints on real estate development; d) more anti-trust enforcement and more state intervention in product markets; and a shift away from a shareholder-centric business model; e) protections for workers and domestic industries through tariff and non-tariff barriers, and more constraints on capital inflows and outflows.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of so-called democratic socialism.

If you prefer hard data, this chart shows that Argentina has the world’s worst economic performance over the past 100 years.

And I imagine the country would look even worse if 1945 was the base year.

Let’s close with this recently tweeted video from Human Progress, which shows relative levels of per-capita economic output over a 100-year period for 16 different nations.

Pay specific attention to how high Argentina was ranked in the late 1940s if you want to appreciate the awful consequences of Peronist statism.

P.S. Also make sure to note that Chile was in last place in the 1970s and then significantly improved in the rankings by liberalizing the economy and reducing the burden of government in the 1980s. Yet another reminder that the world is a laboratory and every experiment tells us the same thing: Statism produces bad results and markets deliver good results.

 

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Having written more than 5000 columns over the past ten-plus years, I’ve learned that policy analysis doesn’t “go viral.”

But I got a small taste of what that would be like when I shared an image in 2016 showing that the right kind of class warfare pits productive people (earners, entrepreneurs, and protectors) against looters (predators, cronies, and rent-seekers).

In other words, rich vs poor is the wrong way to divide society.

Today, I have another image that also has a very powerful message. I don’t know if it will go viral, but it has a very appropriate and accurate message.

For instance, America is now dealing with a lot of controversy regarding occasional police misbehavior and sometimes-violent protests, but it’s hopefully accurate to say that most cops and most protestors are good people

And the same is true for clergy and doctors, even though both groups have a few bad apples.

But notice the group at the bottom.

In part, this image is designed for humorous purposes (and it’s always fun to mock politicians).

But there’s also a serious point. Why are there so many bad and corrupt people in government? There are two possible explanations.

  1. Shallow, insecure, and power-hungry people are drawn to politics because they want to control the lives of others.
  2. Good people run for political office, but then slowly but surely get corrupted because of “public choice” incentives.

Needless to say, it’s possible for both answers to be partially accurate.

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Before our depressing discussion today about the fiscal impact of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, Food Stamps, welfare, and Obamacare, etc), here’s a video of how it all began.

I think this is a great introduction to the issue, particularly since you learn how “public choice” (i.e., politicians engaging in self-serving behavior) played a key role in the development of today’s welfare state.

But if you don’t have the time to watch a long video, here are four key things to understand.

  1. Entitlements (budget geeks sometimes use the term “mandatory spending”) are programs that automatically give people money if they meet certain requirements (such as reaching a certain age or having income below a certain level).
  2. Since these programs automatically give people money, they are not part of the annual appropriations process (the “discretionary spending” parts of the budget that are determined on a yearly basis).
  3. Some entitlement programs are “means tested” and designed to funnel money to low-income individuals. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “unearned benefits.”
  4. Some entitlement programs are “social insurance” since people pay specific tax in exchange for specific benefits. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “earned benefits” (though in many cases recipient receive much more than they paid).

By the way, there’s one additional thing to understand.

Indeed, it may be the most important thing to understand if you care about America’s fiscal and economic future.

5.  Entitlement programs are a slow-motion fiscal train wreck.

Let’s look at a new study authored by James Capretta of the America Enterprise Institute. He also has some sobering observations on the history of entitlement programs.

The growing expense of entitlement programs has occurred steadily for more than a half century and is reflected in the shifting distribution of federal spending activity. …by the early 1960s, two-thirds of all spending continued to require approval by the House and Senate appropriations committees each year, and less than a third was spent on entitlement programs. … By 2019, nearly two-thirds of all spending in the budget was for entitlement programs, and less than a third went to annually appropriated accounts.

If you prefer this information visually, here are a couple of pie charts from the study.

While there are dozens of entitlement programs, the big three are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The largest entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together, they now make up nearly half of all federal spending. Their combined growth over the past half century is the primary source of intensifying fiscal pressure. …In 2019, combined federal spending on them was 9.8 percent of GDP, up from 3.7 percent in 1970. CBO expects them to cost 17.2 percent of GDP in 2050, which is almost equal to the average annual revenue collected by the federal government from 1970 to 2019.

And here’s how they’ve been consuming ever-larger shares of America’s economic output.

What’s driving this ever-increasing fiscal burden?

In part, it’s because we have more and more old people and they are living longer.

So what does all this mean?

Capretta points out that uncontrolled entitlement spending may lead to a debt crisis.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s a secondary concern. The real problem is that government spending will become an ever-larger economic burden. And that will hinder growth whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, here’s the chart from the study that deserves our close attention. It shows the relationship between demographics, benefit generosity, and tax burdens.

Here’s how Capretta describes the relationship.

…for each of the stipulated replacement rates (25, 50, and 75 percent), the tax rate necessary to keep the program solvent rises with increases in the aged dependency ratio. This explains why social insurance taxes in many aging societies have been increased to high levels in recent decades.

I’ve taken the liberty of augmenting the chart to show how these factors interact (though the order of #1 and #2 doesn’t matter).

The bottom line is that the United States is on track to become a high-tax, European-style welfare state if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

In other words, unless there’s genuine entitlement reform, future Americans will be condemned to lower living standards.

P.S. Here’s some more history. In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Richard Ebeling looked at British history to explain how the private sector played a role in social insurance before being displaced by government.

Throughout the 19th century, a primary means for the provision of what today we call the “social safety nets” was by the private sector outside of government. The British Friendly Societies were mutual assistance associations that emerged to provide death benefits for the wives and children of the breadwinner who had passed away. But they soon offered a wide array of other mutual insurance services, including health care coverage, retirement pension programs, unemployment insurance, savings clubs to purchase a family house, and a variety of others. …by the end of the 19th century around two-thirds to three-quarters of the entire British population was covered by one or more of their programs and insurances. The research also discovered that a large majority of the subscribers were in the lower income brackets of the time… What stands out is that these were all private and voluntary associations and exchanges, in which the government paid little or no role.

On a related note, here’s an excellent short video on the English “poor laws” from the 1800s.

P.P.S. In addition to the fiscal burden of entitlement programs, there’s also a major problem in the way these programs discourage work.

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Every so often, I’ll notice a tweet that has some remarkable characteristic.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection.

The Democratic National Committee sent out a tweet back in April that seems like it should have been issued instead by the Libertarian National Committee.

My answer to the DNC’s question is “never.” That’s why I’m a libertarian.

Even when I grudgingly acknowledge that something is a legitimate function of government, I’m never tempted to say or think that “things seem to be going smoothly.”

That’s true when looking at what happens in Washington, what happens in the states, and what happens at the local level.

Needless to say, the DNC wasn’t trying to recruit libertarians. The goal was to condemn Trump’s governing style, specifically with reference to a story about the administration’s chaotic approach to the coronavirus.

And I certainly agree that Trump gives critics plenty of ammunition.

But there are plenty of similar episodes of malfeasance and incompetence during the Obama years. And the Bush years. And in every preceding White House.

The bottom line (as suggested by my collection of “Government in Cartoons“) is that Washington at best is a clumsy oaf. And quite often is a bloated bully.

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As indicated by one of my columns last week, I’m a big believer in federalism.

Indeed, I’ve even proposed that Washington shouldn’t operate any social programs. No food stamps. No Medicaid. No redistribution programs of any kind.

Such programs, to the extent they should exist, should be handled by state and local governments.

The welfare reform legislation under Bill Clinton is an example of how to move in the right direction. A top-down program from Washington was turned into a block grant, and then state and local governments got the freedom to choose policies that might actually help the poor become self-sufficient instead of being trapped in dependency.

Not pure libertarianism, of course, but still an example of progress. And we got good results.

Given this track record, I was very interested to see a column in today’s New York Times by Ezekial Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel on the topic of federal-state fiscal relations.

Medicaid and unemployment insurance…need permanent institutional reform and modernization. …the next stimulus package…should then be…a…federal-state Grand Bargain would solve festering problems in health care and unemployment assistance Years of political experience show that no matter how imperative and sensible, a policy’s chances of success are diminished unless it delivers political benefits. This bargain would create a victory for both parties.

This sounds intriguing. And potentially even desirable.

There’s no question, after all, that the current Medicaid system desperately needs reform. And the unemployment program also is a mess, luring people into joblessness.

So what exactly are the Emanuel brothers proposing? What is the “Grand Bargain” that offers benefits for both sides?

Sadly, it turns out that their bipartisan rhetoric is just an excuse for bigger government.

The bargain, which we call American Modernization Initiative…the federal government to assume the costs and administration of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the states would have to agree to use freed up resources — a quarter of a trillion dollars per year — to invest in education and infrastructure. …The Grand Bargain is not only good policy, but good politics. …Governors would no longer be responsible for large programs… With the American Modernization Initiative, the constant, bitter battles over cutting state programs to fund growing Medicaid costs will disappear.

Yes, you read correctly. Their idea of a “bargain” is that the federal government agrees to spend more money so that that state governments will then have the ability to spend more money.

Even Republicans aren’t stupid enough to go along with that kind of deal.

So I’ll propose an alternative.

According to Chris Edwards, there are now nearly 1,400 programs involving some sort of link or overlap between the federal government and state governments.

The biggest of these programs is Medicaid, accounting for 56 percent of the overall spending.

So why not give the states a choice: They either take full responsibility for Medicaid – including the financing after some transition period. Or they take responsibility for the other 1,385 programs (probably more by now) programs – assuming, again, they are responsible for the financing after a transition period.

Regardless of their choice, the end result would be a system where there’s a reasonably significant shift toward federalism. And perhaps we would add a bit of clarity to the blurry line that currently sets the boundary between what’s Washington’s job and what’s the role of state governments.

And maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be as much wasteful leakage as we have now.

P.S. For what it’s worth, there’s strong academic evidence that decentralized governments produce better outcomes.

P.P.S. Federalism doesn’t only apply to income-redistribution programs. We also should eliminate any role for Washington in areas like education and transportation.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the data on the history of redistribution spending in developed nations.

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There are plenty of people on the left who write serious and substantive articles about fiscal policy. For instance, I strongly disagree with many of the policy prescriptions from the IMF and the OECD, but those international bureaucracies are reasonably rigorous with data.

Heck, they even use real data when they’re being dishonest.

Some people, though, churn out analysis that is utterly disconnected from reality. I’m even thinking of creating a Fiscal Fantasyland Club to commemorate their fact-deprived writings.

  1. In a column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank blamed the “disastrous philosophy” of “anti-government conservatism” for leaving the federal government without the resources to fight the coronavirus.
  2. In an article for the Atlantic, George Packer told readers that the federal government screwed up because it has been subjected to “steady defunding” by right-wing ideologues intent on “squeezing it dry.”
  3. Another columnist for the Washington Post, Dan Balz, claims that the botched response to coronavirus was caused by “underinvestment” and “hollowing out” of the federal budget.

The reason we may need a special club (akin to my collection of “Poverty Hucksters“) is that all of these writers are wildly wrong.

Even a cursory look at budget data confirms that the federal government has been getting bigger over time.

Much bigger.

As such, only someone who is completely ignorant or totally dishonest is capable of writing an article based on the notion that there have been reductions in the burden of federal spending.

If I create this club, I know who will be fourth member.

Writing for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson argues that President Trump’s personal shortcomings are somehow connected to Reagan-type opposition to big government.

He starts with one of my favorite quotes from The Gipper and then tells us that this type of hostility to statism is no longer appropriate or desirable.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic. …Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Given that Washington’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacularly incompetent, well beyond what even libertarians would have predicted, it’s remarkable that Patterson thinks this is a moment in time when people should embrace big government.

And let’s not forget that today’s racial unrest was triggered by government misbehavior, enabled by corrupt deals between local politicians and government employee unions.

But the real problem with Patterson’s rhetoric is that he seems to assume that an argument for some government is the same as an argument for lots of government.

He’s obviously not familiar with the Rahn Curve, which is based on the insight that some government may be good for growth (assuming the outlays are for core public goods) but that lots of government (particularly when spending is for consumption and redistribution) is bad for growth.

To be fair, I understand why Patterson, who is mostly known for being a very successful novelist, isn’t familiar with the academic research on the growth-maximizing size of government.

But since he’s decided to pontificate on these issues, he should feel an obligation to know some basic data.

For instance, he’s a wealthy man and presumably has traveled the world. Hasn’t he noticed that nations with big governments don’t do a better job of providing public goods – even if we use an expansive concept of what government should be doing?

Let’s look at some more of his article.

Patterson not only rejects the notion of smaller government, he seems to embrace bigger government.

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention.” …Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There’s a lot of nonsense in those few sentences. Regarding Manjoo’s quote, I’ll simply repeat my earlier observation about how the federal government has hindered rather than helped the fight against the coronavirus.

The quote from Stuart Stevens is even stranger, at least the the latter part, because it is so completely contrary to real-world data.

While it is true that Reagan briefly reoriented Republicans and did a good job of controlling spending while he was in office, every other Republican in recent history has been a big spender.

They’ve even increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Democratic presidents.

Yet Stevens wants people to believe that’s the track record of a party that thinks “all government is bad.”

I also want to debunk the notion that there’s been a “decades-long gutting of government,” as asserted in the subtitle of Patterson’s article.

Here’s a chart that I shared back in April, which shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980 – and that’s after adjusting for inflation.

If you read Patterson’s entire article, you’ll find that he mostly focuses on President Trump’s chaotic management of the executive branch.

Since I’ve gone on TV and referred to Trump as being akin to the crazy uncle you deal with during family holidays, I’m certainly not going to argue with his criticisms of the White House’s governing style.

But surely it should be possible to criticize the president without relying on make-believe budget analysis.

P.S. I wonder if Patterson and other members of the Fiscal Fantasyland Club have been tricked into thinking that there have been budget cuts.

P.P.S. If Patterson decides to learn and use real budget data, I hope he’ll join me in criticizing Trump for being a big spender.

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Last week, I participated in a webinar with IES Europe. The program covered a wide range of issues, including tax competition, Social Security reform, and the recipe for national prosperity.

Here’s what I said on the topic of federalism.

To add some hard data to the discussion, let’s compare the degree of fiscal decentralization in the United States in both 1902 and 2019, based on numbers from the Census Bureau (click on Govt_Finances) and the Office of Management and Budget (click on Table 14.3).

As you can see from the chart, Washington now accounts for a much bigger share of overall government spending.

By the way, these numbers should not be misinterpreted.

There’s been no reduction in the burden of state and local government outlays. Indeed, there’s been a steady increase in such spending, even after adjusting for inflation.

But the federal government has grown far more rapidly.

Indeed, the fiscal history of the United States is a sad story about the loss of almost all constraints and limits that America’s Founders put in the Constitution in hopes of controlling the size and scope of Washington.

The bottom line is we now have much bigger government and it’s more remote because of centralization.

I mentioned Switzerland in the latter part of my answer.

Here’s the data comparing Switzerland and the United States. As you can see, Switzerland has been more successful in retaining genuine federalism.

Indeed, the two countries are mirror images, with nearly 2/3rds of government spending in the U.S. coming from Washington and nearly 2/3rds of government in Switzerland taking place a the level of cantons and municipalities.

P.S. Here’s what scholars from the Austrian School have said about federalism.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on federalism in the context of issues such as welfare, natural disasters, transportation, coronavirus, infrastructure, and Medicaid,

P.P.P.S. Because there’s strong evidence that decentralization produces better outcomes, I’m even willing to accept bad examples of federalism.

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Hardly anybody noticed because the nation has been focused on protests about police misbehavior, but Joe Biden officially clinched the Democratic nomination this past week.

And he’s now comfortably ahead in the political betting markets as well as public polling.

If Biden wins in November, what does that mean for the nation’s economic policy?

According to folks on the left, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

For instance, opining for the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie applauds Biden’s leftist agenda.

…if the goal is to move America to the left…then a Biden candidacy…represents an opportunity. …If Biden goes on to win the White House, there’s real space for the pro-Sanders left to work its will on policy. …It can fulfill some of its goals under the cover of Biden’s moderation, from raising the minimum wage nationally to pushing the American health care system closer to single-payer. …Biden…is a creature of the party. He doesn’t buck the mainstream, he accommodates it. He doesn’t reject the center, he tries to claim it. …the center of the Democratic Party as far left as it’s been since before Ronald Reagan, then Biden is likely to hew to that center, not challenge it.

His colleague at the NYT, Michelle Goldberg, is similarly enthused about the prospects for bigger government under a Biden Administration.

Biden’s proposals go far beyond his call for a $15 federal minimum wage — a demand some saw as radical when Sanders pushed it four years ago. While it’s illegal for companies to fire employees for trying to organize a union, the penalties are toothless. Biden proposes to make those penalties bite and to hold executives personally liable. …should Biden become president, progressives have the opportunity to make generational gains. …To try to unite the party around him, he’s making serious progressive commitments. …he’s moving leftward. Biden recently came out for tuition-free college for students whose families earn less than $125,000. He endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan…His climate plan already went beyond any of Barack Obama’s initiatives, and he’s pledged to make it even more robust.

According to (supposedly) neutral analysts, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

In an article for Newsweek, Steve Friess discusses Biden’s shift to the left.

Being stuck running for the presidency from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, had given the former vice president a lot of time to think, he told them, and he wanted bigger ideas. Go forth, he urged his financial brain trust, and bring back the boldest, most ambitious proposals they’d ever dreamed of to reshape the U.S. economy… Biden began issuing a raft of new proposals that move his positions closer to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, with a promise to unveil an even more transformative economic plan this summer. …It’s a yes to adding $200 a month to Social Security benefits and lowering the qualifying age for Medicare from 65 to 60. Yes to trillions in new spending, yes to new regulations on banks and industry, yes to devil-may-care deficits. …the leader he most often invokes—in interviews, in public addresses, on his podcast—is no longer Barack Obama but Franklin Delano Roosevelt. …Biden has already made a series of significant leftward policy shifts since effectively sewing up the nomination in March.

Perry Bacon, in a piece for fivethirtyeight, analyzes Biden’s statist agenda.

…if Biden is elected in November, the left may get a presidency it likes after all…if American politics is moving left, expect Biden to do the same. …Biden’s long record in public office suggests that he is fairly flexible on policy — shifting his positions to whatever is in the mainstream of the Democratic Party at a given moment. …Biden is likely to be a fairly liberal president, no matter how moderate he sounded in the primaries. …Biden’s 2020 primary platform…adopted fairly liberal policies…more liberal than his pre-campaign record suggested. The Democratic Party is more liberal now than it was when Bill Clinton took office, or even when Obama was inaugurated, and Biden’s platform reflects that shift. …Biden and his advisers are now…rolling out more liberal policy plans, speaking in increasingly populist terms and joining forces with the most progressive voices in the party. …“Joe Biden is running on the most progressive platform of any Democratic nominee in recent history. But given the pandemic, he has to look at the New Deal and Great Society traditions in the Democratic Party and go bigger,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez.

Writing for the Washington Post, Sean Sullivan documents Biden’s leftward drift.

Joe Biden sought to appeal to liberal supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday with a pair of new proposals to expand access to health care and curtail student loan debt. Biden proposed lowering the eligibility age for Medicare coverage from 65 to 60. He also came out in favor of forgiving student loan debt for people who attended public colleges and universities and some private schools and make up to $125,000 a year. …In another peace offering to liberals, Biden proposed paying for his student debt plan by repealing a provision in the recent coronavirus legislation that Congress passed and President Trump enacted. “That tax cut overwhelmingly benefits the richest Americans and is unnecessary for addressing the current COVID-19 economic relief efforts,” he wrote… Biden endorsed a bankruptcy plan put forth by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another rival who ran to his left.

And, according to more market-friendly sources, a Biden presidency means bigger government and more statism.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about Biden’s leftist agenda.

Already Medicare is scheduled to be insolvent by 2026. …In 1970, life expectancy in the U.S. was 70.8. Now it’s about eight years longer. By lowering the age of eligibility instead, Mr. Biden would begin shifting Medicare’s focus from seniors to everybody else. Don’t worry about the funding, he insists, since the extra costs would be “financed out of general revenues.” …Mr. Biden’s new left turn on student loans is equally sharp. …Cancel all federal undergraduate tuition debt for many borrowers who went to public schools, including four-year universities. This forgiveness would be given to anyone who earns $125,000 a year or less. …How much would it cost? There’s no explanation.

Jeff Jacoby analyzed Biden in a column for the Boston Globe.

Biden…is running on a platform far more progressive — i.e., far less moderate — than any Democratic presidential nominee in history. …on issue after issue, Biden has veered sharply from Obama’s path. On health insurance, for example, Obama rejected a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act and repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining private coverage. But Biden favors a public option open to everyone… Biden supports government-funded health care even for unauthoritzed immigrants, something Obama never came close to proposing. …No Democratic presidential nominee ever endorsed anything like the radical Green New Deal, with its price tag in the tens of trillions of dollars and its goal of eliminating the use of all fossil fuels. But Biden does. No Democratic nominee ever called for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. But Biden does. …Sanders may not end up on the November ballot, but it will unmistakably reflect his influence. For he and his band of progressives have pushed their party to the left with such success that even the “moderate” in the race would be the most liberal Democrat ever nominated for president.

Here’s some of what Peter Suderman wrote for Reason.

Biden is a moderate compared to Sanders, but he is notably to the left of previous Democratic standard-bearers. …Biden has proposed a significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act that his campaign estimates would cost $750 billion over a decade… Biden has proposed a $1.7 trillion climate plan that is similar in scope to many candidates on his left and a $750 billion education plan… He favors an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures, a national $15 minimum wage, and a raft of subsidies, loans, and other government-granted nudges designed to promote rural economies. Has proposed $3.4 trillion worth of tax hikes—more than double what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed when she ran in 2016. …Biden’s leftward drift is thus the party’s leftward shift…, a big-government liberal, a candidate whose current incarnation was shaped and informed by progressive politics, if not wholly captured by them.

The Tax Foundation examined the former Vice President’s tax plan and the results are not encouraging.

Former Vice President Joe Biden would enact a number of policies that would raise taxes, including individual income taxes and payroll taxes, on high-income individuals with income above $400,000. …According to the Tax Foundation’s General Equilibrium Model, the Biden tax plan would reduce GDP by 1.51 percent over the long term. …The plan would shrink the capital stock by 3.23 percent and reduce the overall wage rate by 0.98 percent, leading to 585,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …On a dynamic basis, we estimate that Biden’s tax plan would raise about 15 percent less revenue than on a conventional basis over the next decade. …That is because the relatively smaller economy would shrink the tax base for payroll, individual income, and business income taxes. …The plan would lead to lower after-tax income for all income levels.

Here’s a table summarizing the findings.

So what does all this mean?

At the risk of oversimplifying, Biden unquestionably would move tax policy to the left (he actually said higher taxes are patriotic, even though he engages in aggressive tax avoidance), and the same thing would happen on regulatory issues.

His spending agenda is terrible, though it’s worth noting that Democrat presidents usually don’t spend as much as Republicans (with the admirable exception of Reagan).

And, to be fair, there’s no way he could be as bad on trade as Trump.

Let’s close by looking at some hard data. Back in January, I sifted through the vote ratings prepared by the National Taxpayers Union and the Club for Growth and showed that Biden was not a Bill Clinton-style moderate.

I went back to those same sources an put together this comparison of Biden and some other well-known Democrats (scores on a 0-100 scale, with zero being statism and 100 being libertarian).

In both measures, he’s worse than Crazy Bernie!

Moreover, a lifetime average of zero from the Club for Growth is rather horrifying. His average from the National Taxpayers Union isn’t quite so bad, but the trend is in the wrong direction. Biden’s post-2000 average was less than 10, while his score for the preceding years averaged more than 23.

That being said, my two cents on this topic is that Biden is a statist, but not overly ideological.

His support for bigger government is largely a strategy of catering to the various interest groups that dominate the Democratic Party.

The good news is that he’s an incrementalist and won’t aggressively push for a horrifying FDR-style agenda if he gets to the White House.

The bad news is that he will probably allow Nancy Pelosi and other statist ideologues to dictate that kind of agenda if he wins the presidency.

P.S. My collection of Biden-oriented humor is rather sparse (see here, here, here, and here), an oversight that I’ll have to address in the near future.

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Margaret Thatcher was the British version of Ronald Reagan, a leader who resuscitated a nation by rolling back the size and scope of government.

She also is famous for one of the most accurate observations ever made about fiscal policy.

Her warning proved prophetic when the Soviet Bloc collapsed.

Her wise words also could be applied to what happened about a decade ago in Greece. And what’s about to happen in Italy.

But let’s not forget that the United States isn’t immune to the problem of excessive government. The Wall Street Journal has a sobering editorial on the pro-spending sentiment that dominates the nation’s capital.

…in Washington the politicians are debating how to spend another few trillion dollars in the name of virus relief. …Mrs. Pelosi’s House bill promises another $3 trillion for her various constituencies on top of the $2.7 trillion or so Congress has already spent on the pandemic. The goal is income redistribution… This political strategy may work since Republicans, as usual, are divided and defensive. …Mr. Trump…seems torn about what to support and is thinking only as far as November. This is a recipe for another deal on Democratic terms… Sooner or later the pandemic will end. The question is what kind of economy will be left. A second Cares Act would leave a legacy of vastly larger government that would mean slower growth and take years to overcome.

Yes, the spending binge will mean slower growth.

But I’m even more worried about what will happen in the future. Here are three things to keep in mind.

  1. Largely because of Bush, Obama, and Trump, the federal budget has tripled since 1980 (Reagan and Clinton were comparatively frugal). Keep in mind that the increase in the accompanying chart shows the growth in spending after adjusting for inflation.
  2. The burden of federal spending is projected to skyrocket in future years because of the combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. In other words, our fiscal outlook is grim even if politicians don’t approve an additional penny of new spending.
  3. However, politicians are spending more money. A lot more.  As shown in the accompanying chart, this has caused a huge spike in per-capita outlays. And the crowd in Washington wants to make the red portion much bigger.

Given all this bad news, does Thatcher’s warning about running out “of other people’s money” apply to the United States?

As bad as the numbers are, my two cents is that the U.S. won’t suffer a fiscal crisis anytime soon. As I noted at the end of this interview, Washington can probably continue with business-as-usual fiscal policy for several more decades (Adam Smith observed that it usually takes a lot of bad policy over a long period of time to cause economic ruin).

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to travel down that path.

Here’s an analogy. Smoking three packs of cigarettes a day presumably won’t kill someone within the first 10 years, but it’s definitely not a recipe for long-run health and vitality. Sooner or later, there will be consequences.

A mature and sensible people (like the Swiss) take steps to avoid the fiscal version of those bad consequences.

For what it’s worth, similar reforms have been proposed for the United States. Unfortunately, too many American politicians and consumed by self-interest and don’t think past the next election.

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Politicians from New York want states to get a big bailout from Uncle Sam. I explained earlier this month that this would be a bad idea.

Simply stated, the Empire State is in big trouble because it has a bloated government, not because of the coronavirus.

Probably the strongest piece of evidence is that New York is ranked #50 for fiscal policy according to Freedom in the 50 States.

If you want to understand how New York’s politicians have created a fiscal disaster, let’s compare the Empire State to Florida, which is ranked #1.

I’ve already done that three times (Round #1, Round #2, and Round #3), so this will be Round #4.

The Wall Street Journal compared the two states in an editorial two days ago.

…let’s do the math to consider which state has managed its economy and finances better over the last decade. …Democrats in Albany are claiming to be victims of events that are out of their control. But they have increased spending by $43 billion since 2010—about $570,000 for each additional person. Florida’s budget has increased by $28 billion while its population has grown 2.7 million—a $10,400 increase per new resident. New York has a top state-and-local tax rate of 12.7%, while Florida has no income tax. Yet New York has a growing budget deficit, while Mr. Scott inherited a large deficit but built a surplus and paid down state debt. The difference is spending. …Blame New York’s cocktail of generous benefits, loose eligibility standards and waste. New York spends about twice as much per Medicaid beneficiary and six times more on nursing homes as Florida though its elderly population is 20% smaller. …The rate of private job growth in Florida has been about 60% higher than in New York from January 2010 to January 2020. Finance jobs expanded by 25% in Florida compared to 9.7% in New York. …The policy question is why taxpayers in Florida and other well-managed states should pay higher taxes to rescue an Albany political class that refuses to restrain its tax-and-spend governance. Public unions soak up an ever-larger share of tax dollars, but Albany refuses to change.

If you want further details on the difference between the two states, Chris Edwards takes a close look at the burden of government spending.

New York and Florida have similar populations of 20 million and 21 million, respectively. But governments in New York spent twice as much as governments in Florida, $348 billion compared to $177 billion. On some activities, spending in the two states is broadly similar… But in other budget areas, New York’s excess spending is striking. New York spent $69 billion on K-12 schools in 2017 compared to Florida’s $28 billion. Yet the states have about the same number of kids enrolled—2.7 million in New York and 2.8 million in Florida. New York spent $71 billion on public welfare compared to Florida’s $28 billion. Liberals say that governments provide needed resources to people truly in need. Conservatives say that generous handouts induce high demand whether people need it or not. Given that New York’s welfare costs are 2.5 times higher than Florida’s, the latter effect probably dominates. …New York governments employed 1,196,632 workers in 2017 compared to Florida’s 889,950 (measured in FTEs). …Most New York residents do not benefit from bloat in government payrolls, inefficient transit, excessive welfare, and deficit spending. To them, the high taxes are disproportionate to the government services received. That is why they are moving to better‐​managed states with lower taxes.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

And he also compares the level of bureaucracy in both states.

New York’s excess includes spending more on handouts such as welfare. Another cause of New York’s high spending is employment of more government workers and paying them more than in Florida. …New York governments employ 34 percent more workers than Florida governments. …The two states have similar K-12 school enrollments of 2.7 million in New York and 2.8 million in Florida. But New York employs 31 percent more teachers and administrators than Florida. Do the 111,000 extra staff in New York generate better school outcomes? Apparently not…study puts Florida near the top and New York in the middle on school quality. Does New York really need two times more highway workers than Florida and three times more welfare workers? …Government workers in New York make 42 percent more in wages than government workers in Florida, on average.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

The bottom line is that New York is a great place to be an over-paid bureaucrat in an over-staffed bureaucracy.

But if you’re a taxpayer, Florida is the easy winner – which may explain why so many productive people are leaving the Empire State and permanently migrating to the Sunshine State.

P.S. The same pattern exists all across the United States. Taxpayers are escaping the poorly managed states and fleeing to low-tax states. Especially ones with no income taxes.

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When I write enough columns with the same underlying point, I sometimes create a special page to highlight the theme, such as the “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame” and “Poverty Hucksters.”

I may have to do something similar for people who assert that America’s response to the coronavirus has been hampered because the federal government is too small.

For instance, Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post last month that “anti-government conservatism…caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government.”

Ironically, the nations he cited for their successful approach – Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – all have a much smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Which actually supports my argument that bigger governments are less effective and competent.

But evidence doesn’t seem to matter to some journalists.

One of Milbank’s colleagues, Dan Balz, has just authored a long article that regurgitates the assertion that there’s been “underinvestment” in the federal government.

The government’s halting response to the coronavirus pandemic represents the culmination of chronic structural weaknesses, years of underinvestment and political rhetoric that has undermined the public trust… The nation is reaping the effects of decades of denigration of government and also from a steady squeeze on the resources needed to shore up the domestic parts of the executive branch. This hollowing out has been going on for years as a gridlocked Congress preferred continuing resolutions and budgetary caps… The question is whether the weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed by the current crisis will generate a newfound interest among the nation’s elected officials — and the public — in repairing the infrastructure of government. …“We don’t want to invest in the capacity of government to get the job done,” Kettl said. …said David E. Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University…“We’re seeing a government that is suffering now from a long period of neglect that began well before this administration. And that neglect has accelerated during this administration.”

What’s especially remarkable is that the article cites the government’s lack of testing capacity as evidence of “underinvestment.”

Over these years, there have been a series of major government breakdowns that helped shake confidence in government’s competence. …The pandemic has forced another critical look at government’s competence. …more tests might have helped contain the spread. It is the case now as businesses look to reopen but cannot assure safety for workers or their communities without the widespread availability of tests, which so far does not exist.

Yet the bureaucracies with responsibility for testing – the FDA and CDC – have received big budget increases.

Was that money well spent?

Hardly. Not only have they failed in their mission, their red tape and inefficiency have hindered the private sector’s ability to develop and deploy tests.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, Balz wants readers to believe that people don’t have faith in government because of hostile rhetoric from politicians.

Marc Hetherington, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said the public conversation about government began to shift with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. …“What changed with Reagan and the decades since is that the conversation moves away from what government ought to do to government is incompetent to do things,” he said. …Democratic politicians have engaged in some of the same kind of thing. “Every candidate has campaigned on a bureaucracy-bashing theme,” Nabatchi said. “That message has gotten through to affect people’s confidence in government.”

The alternative explanation, needless to say, is that people don’t have confidence in the public sector because government has a long track record of mistakes and incompetence.

But I guess that’s merely my opinion.

So let’s instead close today’s column with some hard data.

Here’s a chart I shared last month while debunking an article by George Packer for the Atlantic (he claimed we have “a federal government crippled by years of…steady defunding”).

It shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Which led me to observe that, “The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.”

That same sentiment obviously applies to Dan Balz and the Washington Post.

P.S. While Balz and Milbank were guilty of avoiding numbers, the Washington Post doesn’t have a great track record when its journalists try to use numbers. In other words, maybe the problem is bias rather than innumeracy.

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I’ve written four columns (here, here, here, and here) on the general failure of government health bureaucracies to effectively respond to the coronavirus.

The pattern was so pronounced that it even led me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

I’m not surprised at this outcome, of course, given the poor overall track record of the public sector.

But I was negatively surprised to learn how red tape from these bureaucracies prevented the private sector from quickly reacting to the crisis.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those bureaucracies, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Eric Boehm, writing for Reason, has a nice summary of the CDC’s failures.

Over the past three decades, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has seen its taxpayer-funded budget doubled. Then doubled again. Then doubled again. And then nearly doubled once more. But spending nearly 14 times as much as we did in 1987 on the agency whose mission statement says it “saves lives and protects people from health threats” did not, apparently, help the CDC combat the emergence of the biggest disease threat America has faced in a century. In fact, …inflating the CDC’s budget may have weakened the agency’s ability to handle its core responsibility by giving rise to mission creep and bureaucratic malaise. …the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. …Has all that extra funding made America safer? …hindsight now suggests that the CDC should have spent more time and money researching emergent influenza-like infectious diseases, a project that received just $185 million in funding… Instead, the CDC was doing things like spending $1.75 million on the creation of a “Hollywood liaison”.

A big problem with bureaucracies is that they engage in mission creep. They concoct new roles and responsibilities in hopes of justifying bigger budgets and more staff.

The CDC certainly is no exception. In its early years, the bureaucracy had a targeted mission, focusing on diseases posing a major threat to public health, such as malaria, plague, and tuberculosis.

Over the years, though, it has lost focus and become involved with social issues.

Daniel Greenfield opines on the CDC’s foolish diversions on issues such as obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control has…one job which it messes up every time. The last time the CDC had a serious workout was six years ago during the Ebola crisis. Back then CDC guidelines allowed medical personnel infected with Ebola to avoid a quarantine and interact with Americans… There were no protocols in place for treating the potentially infected resulting in the further spread of the disease inside the United States. …Meanwhile, CDC personnel had managed to mishandle Ebola virus samples, accidentally sending samples of the live virus to CDC labs. …During the Ebola crisis, the CDC had been spending…$2.6 million on gun violence studies. But the CDC has a history of wasting money on everything from a $106 million visitor’s center with Japanese gardens, a $200K gym, a transgender beauty pageant, not to mention promoting bike paths. …the CDC’s general incompetence…, like that of other government agencies, just ticks along wasting money. In 1999, the CDC announced a plan to end syphilis in 5 years…an unserious social welfare proposal that wanted to battle racism and was such a success that by 2018, syphilis rates had hit a new record high. … The CDC’s fight against the “obesity epidemic” is even sillier. That includes…giving LSU over a million bucks to work with farmers’ markets. Obesity obviously can kill people, but it’s not something that the CDC can or should be trying to fix. …Unfortunately, the CDC, like every federal agency, has drifted from its core mission into social welfare. …No one thinks about the CDC until we need it and discover it doesn’t work. And then the same story repeats itself a few years later while the CDC goes back to battling obesity and racism. …We don’t need a CDC that changes people’s minds about eating chocolate or engaging in unprotected sex. There are already multiple redundant parts of the government that are trying and failing there.

In a column for Forbes, Larry Bell reviewed the history of the CDC’s politicized campaigning against gun ownership.

In 1996, the Congress axed $2.6 million allocated for gun research from the CDC out of its $2.2 billion budget, charging that its studies were being driven by anti-gun prejudice. …There was a very good reason for the gun violence research funding ban. Virtually all of the scores of CDC-funded firearms studies conducted since 1985 had reached conclusions favoring stricter gun control.  This should have come as no surprise, given that ever since 1979, the official goal of the CDC’s parent agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, had been “…to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership”… Sociologist David Bordura and epidemiologist David Cowan characterized the public health literature on guns at that time as “advocacy based upon political beliefs rather than scientific fact”. …Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan”, a CDC-funded organization…said: “guns are a virus that must be eradicated…”

Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote for Inside Sources about the CDC’s senseless efforts to restrict vaping.

Our health agencies had the information and the resources, so they should have been planning for this, but they weren’t. The problem isn’t because they’re underfunded, it’s that they are bloated and mismanaged. …a close look at how CDC spends its budget reveals it has strayed from this mission of protecting Americans from communicable diseases, turning more toward influencing people’s lifestyle choices. …Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC and other agencies were busy sounding the alarm about the nonexistent “epidemic” of youth vaping. Collectively, they spent billions on anti-vaping advertisements, biased research and lobbying, wasted countless hours of congressional hearing time, and squandering public trust. Had they remained focused on infectious disease, might have been prepared to fight real epidemics, like the COVID-19. …there’s nothing new about exploiting a crisis to expand budgets and score political points. Similar claims of inadequate funding were made during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, for which various health agencies got an additional $5.4 billion. And what do we have to show for it now?

Let’s wrap up by noting that squandering money should be viewed as the CDC’s indirect failure.

The direct failure was how the bureaucracy bungled its one legitimate function of fighting infectious disease.

Jacob Sullum, writing for the New York Post, explains what happened.

The grand failure of federal health bureaucrats foreclosed the possibility of a more proactive and targeted approach… At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ­monopolized COVID-19 tests. When the CDC began shipping test kits to state laboratories in early February, they turned out to be defective. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration initially blocked efforts by universities and businesses to develop and conduct tests… The CDC still insists that “not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.” But without testing everyone — or at least representative samples — for both the virus itself and the antibodies to it, we can do little better than guess its prevalence, its lethality and the extent of immunity among the general public. …Our ignorance about COVID-19 will have profound consequences, potentially leading to an overreaction that wrecks the economy while saving relatively few lives… You can thank the same agencies on which we are relying to guide us through this crisis.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center summarizes the issue, noting that the CDC is a monumental failure.

The lack of preparedness at every level of government (federal, state, and local) has nothing to do with a lack of funding or inadequate staffing. Instead, it has everything to do with governments’ bloat, mismanagement, cronyism, and poor focus. That’s particularly true of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). …it is no secret how much the CDC is to blame for the country’s lack of preparedness to take on the coronavirus (followed very closely in ineptitude by the Food and Drug Administration). …By now, every major newspaper has reported on the incredible failure of the CDC during this crisis. …Messing up is not a new thing for the CDC. However, unlike what its employees and political allies like to claim, the agency’s poor record and its lack of preparedness has nothing to do with a lack of funding. …For instance, funding for its National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases—which aims to prevent diseases like Ebola—received only $514 million in 2018, a tiny sliver (less than 5%) of total CDC funding. And less than half of that $514 million went to emerging diseases like COVID-19. The rest of that budget is spent on stuff like chronic fatigue. Meanwhile, funding…to prevent smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diets…received nearly $1 billion over that same time, almost double the funding for infectious-disease prevention.

Here’s a look (courtesy of Chris Edwards) at what’s happened to the CDC budget over time.

As you can see, the bureaucrats got more and more funding. Yet when America needed competence, they didn’t deliver.

P.S. The bureaucrats are not the only ones to blame. A big reason for the CDC’s lack of focus is that headline-seeking and vote-buying politicians created new roles and responsibilities. The CDC was happy to get more power, staff, and money, of course (just as it will be happy to get more power, staff, and money as a reward for its failure to deal with the coronavirus).

P.P.S. It’s almost as if there’s a lesson to be learned.

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I spoke last week about the “Economic Consequences of the Crisis” for a webinar organized by the Estonian Business School.

My remarks focused on the severity of the downturn, the likelihood of a new fiscal crisis in Europe, and how to balance the costs and benefits of re-opening the economy.

The full program, which was part of the Digital Free Market Road Show, can be viewed by clicking here.

For today’s column, I want to focus on my final slide, which asks whether politicians will use the crisis to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I didn’t make any sweeping predictions when discussing this slide, though my tone was somewhat pessimistic. Simply stated, I fear we’ll have a bigger burden of government when the coronavirus crisis abates.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the outcome. As I wrote two years ago, it’s possible for a crisis to produce either more statism or more liberalization.

Robert Higgs and Don Boudreaux, writing about this topic for Reason, fear that politicians will succeed in using the crisis to move the needle in the wrong direction.

Although everyone seems to agree that these measures are to be employed only in the short run, until the incidence of the disease has been reduced either by herd immunity or by new medical treatments, no one at the start put together an exit strategy from these extraordinary increases in governments’ size, scope, and power. Everything was done on a piecemeal basis from day to day, on the assumption that when an endgame came into view the governments would terminate their crisis actions. This assumption runs counter to how crisis-borne increases in government’s size, scope, and power have played out in the past. …the growth of government that attends national emergencies is not surrendered fully when the crisis ends. Instead, a ratchet effect operates whereby much of the crisis-borne growth of government becomes institutionalized in agencies and practices and, more important, in the dominant ideology of political elites and the general public.

Higgs and Boudreaux use insights from “public choice” to describe the process that produces ever-larger government.

As crisis followed crisis—World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the multifaceted turmoil of the Johnson-Nixon years, the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession that began in 2008—the ratchet effect ensured that government’s growth trajectory was displaced upward, time after time. …People sometimes regretted actions taken hastily during a crisis but found that reversing them was diabolically difficult. …The ratchet effect operates because of incentives and constraints built into the political and economic structure. …To disable the ratchet effect, people must rouse themselves to think more seriously about the long-run consequences of actions taken hastily in response to national emergencies—and about whether they want to keep their remaining economic freedoms and civil liberties or be content to surrender them one crisis at a time.

It’s hard to argue with their analysis, but I’ll close with a bit of optimism.

Here’s a chart based on data from Economic Freedom of the World, including research extending estimates back to 1950. It shows that – notwithstanding various crises – there has not been a decline in liberty for the United States since World War II.

This suggests that Higgs and Boudreaux are too gloomy.

I wonder, however, when going as far back as the 1950s-1970s, if the data is good enough to produce reliable estimates of economic liberty.

How can it be true, for instance, that overall economic liberty increased during the 1970s, when we had Nixon’s awful statism?

Though maybe I have tunnel vision because of my focus on fiscal policy. A Spanish scholar who put together long-run data on non-fiscal policy (going all the way back to 1850) found that economic liberty has been increasing.

In any event, let’s hope that economic liberty doesn’t shrink in the future. Assuming, of course, we care about national prosperity and poverty reduction.

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A Supreme Court Justice pointed out in 1932 that “a state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Well, we’ve had several experiments in higher taxes and higher spending, and they don’t work.

States with heavier fiscal burdens are accumulating ever-higher levels of debt (especially unfunded liabilities) while also causing an ever-greater exodus of taxpayers to other states.

In the long run, this is a recipe for fiscal crisis since it’s hard to give away lots of money if there aren’t enough taxpayers to finance that profligacy (as illustrated by this set of cartoons).

Well, with the help of the coronavirus, the long run may have arrived.

But the pandemic only exposed a problem that already existed.

Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, wrote two years ago in the Washington Post that poorly manged states like Connecticut shouldn’t be bailed out by taxpayers in better-run states.

…several of today’s 50 states have descended into unmanageable public indebtedness. …in terms of per capita state debt, Connecticut ranks among the worst in the nation, with unfunded liabilities amounting to $22,700 per citizen. Each profligate state is facing its own budgetary perdition for different reasons, but most share common factors. The explosion of Medicaid spending, even before Obamacare, has devoured state funds… In parallel, public pensions of sometimes grotesque levels guarantee that the fiscal strangulation will soon get much worse. In California, some retired lifeguards are receiving more than $90,000 per year. A retired university president in Oregon received $76,000 per month — and no, that’s not a typo. These are the modern-day welfare queens… More and more desperate tax increases haven’t cured the problem; it’s possible that they are making it worse. When a state pursues boneheaded policies long enough, people and businesses get up and leave, taking tax dollars with them.

In a remarkably prescient passage, Daniels speculates about a future emergency that will lead to pressure for a federal bailout.

Sometime in the next few years, we are likely to go through our own version of the recent euro-zone drama with, let’s say, Connecticut in the role of Greece and maybe a larger, “too big to fail” partner such as Illinois as Italy. Adding up the number of federal legislators from the 15 or 20 fiscally weakest states, one can count something close to half the votes in the House.

Which brings us to the current situation.

The crowd in Washington has already funneled several hundred billion dollars to state and local governments.

But politicians like Governor Cuomo in New York and Governor Pritzker in Illinois view all that money as an appetizer and now they want the fiscal equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal are not sympathetic to these fiscal pyromaniacs.

The question to ask is why taxpayers in Appleton and Sarasota should rescue politicians and unions in Albany and Springfield? …states like New York were already in trouble from their own mismanagement. …take Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker…raised taxes in 2019 and wants to make the state’s current flat tax progressive… Yet he and the unions who own the state house have blocked pension or spending reforms. They’ve long bet on a federal bailout, and they see Covid-19 as their main chance. …President Trump has signaled he’s open to a state bailout because, well, he’s open to anything these days. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caused a stir…when he said states should consider bankruptcy rather than get a bailout. …Mr. McConnell’s larger point is that states shouldn’t get more no-strings cash. Private companies that borrow from the Fed and Treasury have to meet stiff conditions, including limits on compensation, and the same should apply to state governments. Bailout conditions should include cuts in nonessential spending, immediate and permanent reductions in public pension benefits.

Kevin Williamson explains in National Review that the problem is a pre-existing penchant for over-spending and vote-buying.

Bailing out the Illinois state pension system is the worst idea from a week in which we were discussing the health benefits of mainlining Lysol. Irresponsible state and local governments are attempting to exploit the fear and disruption of the coronavirus epidemic to push off the consequences of their decades of reckless and culpably dishonest policies onto the federal government. … One of the largest problems facing state and local governments, from Illinois to Oklahoma and from Los Angeles to Dallas, is “unfunded liabilities,” meaning the differences between the promises governments have made to their employees and the money they have set aside to pay for those things. …Government workers are a powerful political constituency — they run California — and they want the same thing everybody else does: more. …If Washington were to dump a few billion dollars into the lap of the feckless cartwheeling goobers who run Illinois, the underlying problem of chronic underfunding of future pension liabilities would remain, and Illinois would be right back where it is today in a year or two. A bailout would not solve the problem — it would keep the problem from being solved.

Adam Michel of the Heritage Foundation explains how bailouts create the wrong incentives.

The prospect of federal tax dollars creates an incentive for state legislatures to both expand existing programs beyond sustainable levels, and to simultaneously underfund those programs in hopes of further federal support. …One example is how states often delay needed infrastructure projects (for which funds are locally available) in hopes of one day receiving federal funds to cover the project costs. …An unrestricted bailout of the states could be highly unequal, forcing taxpayers in well-run states to subsidize those who have systematically underfunded their pensions and rainy day funds, or those states who have particularly volatile revenue systems. …Federal aid tends to expand state budgets and make them less resilient during future crises. Simply moving state funding to the federal government does little more than redistribute local costs to federal taxpayers across all 50 states.

Senator Rick Scott of Florida opines for the Wall Street Journal that taxpayers in his state shouldn’t pick up the tab for New York’s profligate politicians.

…one thing we absolutely shouldn’t do is shield states from the consequences of their own bad budgetary decisions over the past few decades. …Democrats’ true aim: using federal taxpayer dollars to bail out poorly run states—typically, states controlled by Democrats. …Florida is well-positioned to address the coming shortfall in revenue without a bailout. The state may need to make some choices, which is what grown-ups do in tough economic times. And if we need to borrow a small amount in the short term to get us through this economic crisis, that borrowing will be cheaper thanks to our AAA bond rating and the reduction in state debt. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was “irresponsible” and “reckless” not to bail out states like his, a state with two million fewer people than Florida and a budget almost double the size of ours.

Well stated. Any comparison of Florida and New York shows the benefit of limited government.

Jonathan Williams and Lee Schalk of the American Legislative Exchange Council, opining for the Hill, argue against a bailout.

A growing chorus of governors is calling on Congress to “bail out” state governments. …Their plea comes on the heels of the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included a general $150 billion COVID-19 relief fund, a $30 billion education costs fund, a $45 billion disaster relief fund and more for state and local governments. …History suggests that federal bailouts…incentivize future fiscal irresponsibility and create a moral hazard problem. Bailouts reward fiscally reckless states at the expense of fiscally responsible ones. Academic research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University shows that federal bailouts could even lead to higher state level taxes. According to their research, every dollar of federal aid to states drives state taxes higher by 33 to 42 cents. …State and local governments do not lack revenue. They lack spending restraint. Over the past 40 years, after fully accounting for increases in population and inflation, state and local direct general spending has grown by 88 percent.

The last sentence in the excerpt is key. State politicians have been violating fiscal policy’s Golden Rule by letting spending grow too fast.

What’s needed is TABOR-style spending restraint, as Williams pointed out in a 2015 speech.

So if a bailout is the wrong solution, what’s the right solution? There are three potential options.

Ramesh Ponnuru writes that states should have a process for declaring bankruptcy.

Some states have made exorbitant promises to their employees over the years without providing adequate funding. They made up the difference, on paper, by projecting unrealistically high returns on pension investments. The Federal Reserve, applying a better projection of returns, estimates that pensions are underfunded by $4 trillion. McConnell is right to think that it would be unfair to make Florida’s teachers and firefighters pay for benefits for their counterparts in Illinois, and unwise to create an incentive for further irresponsibility by state officials. …Federal law currently makes no provision for states to re-organize their commitments through bankruptcy proceedings. Creating one would not keep the coronavirus from crushing state budgets. It could, however, prevent, or at least limit, future federal bailouts for state mismanagement of pensions.

His colleague at National Review, Kevin Williamson, has a different perspective. His article argues that default is better than a Washington-dictated process for bankruptcy.

The several states are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. They are powers in their own right, superseded by the U.S. government only in certain matters that involve more than one state: Washington can declare war or write immigration law, but it cannot tell Austin how to run the Texas Rangers or Sacramento how to prioritize its finances. Because bankruptcy law is federal law, putting states into bankruptcy reorganization would upend our basic constitutional arrangement, making state governments answerable to federal bankruptcy judges and, behind them, to Congress. …Sovereigns don’t go bankrupt. Sovereigns default. And that is what is likely to happen with the pension crisis, at least as far as states’ creditors are concerned. It is what should happen. …we should not use the coronavirus as an excuse to federalize the consequences of culpably irresponsible and fundamentally dishonest governance at the state and local level. …If we want debt markets to work, then investors have to pay the price for bad investments. (Lending money to an organization run by Bill de Blasio is a bad decision.) Making creditors take a painful haircut creates incentives to discourage such willy-nilly lending and profligate spending in the future. …Government debt should in this respect be treated like any other debt — and we should change the law to strip municipal bonds of their tax-free status, which creates a subsidy for debt.

And Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute argues in the Wall Street Journal that – if a bailout is offered – it should be accompanied by strict conditions.

Congress may want to offer assistance, but it should come with strict conditions: Any state looking for a pension handout must either live by the stricter accounting rules federal law imposes on private pension plans or freeze its pension and shift all employees to defined-contribution retirement plans. Private-sector plans must assume more-conservative investment returns than public-sector plans and address unfunded liabilities more rapidly. As a result, private pensions today have set aside more than twice as much funding per dollar of promised future benefits than have state and local pensions. …Freezing a pension doesn’t make its unfunded liabilities go away. But it caps existing liabilities while shifting employees to plans in which the government’s funding obligation is clearly defined and can’t be evaded using actuarial or accounting tricks.

Of these options, a conditional bailout is not a good idea, even though it is the best way of doing the wrong thing.

Either bankruptcy or default would be a much better choice, and I lean in the direction of default (the same view I have when contemplating Europe’s failing welfare states).

But the right option is to avoid getting in trouble in the first place.

And that means low taxes, spending restraint, and other market-friendly policies.

I’ll simply note that the states most anxious for bailouts are near the bottom in rankings of small government and economic liberty.

If Washington provides a bailout, that’s a reward for statism and irresponsibility (sort of like foreign aid subsidizing bad policy overseas).

P.S. One month ago, I wrote that the worst coronavirus-related proposal would be restoring the federal tax deduction for state and local tax payments.

I still think that is a terrible idea, of course, but a big bailout from Washington would be even worse.

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Since government officials have imposed severe restrictions on economic activity, I’m sympathetic to the notion that businesses should be compensated.

But, as I warn in this CNBC interview, I have major concerns about big government and big business getting in bed together.

As is so often the case with interviews on live TV, there are many issues that didn’t get appropriate attention (either because there was too little time or because I failed to address a key point).

  • A major risk of bailouts is that politicians will insist on having a say in how companies operate. Indeed, that’s what Christian Weller was calling for in the final part of the interview. I should have pointed out the huge economic downside of having government in the boardroom.
  • There’s a rationale for short-run emergency legislation, but we should be very concerned that self-interested politicians and power-hungry bureaucracies will use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to permanently expand their power and control over the economy’s productive sector.

P.S. I usually try to avoid making predictions (economists are lousy forecasters), but I feel confident in asserting that my friends on the left – once the coronavirus crisis has ended – will be complaining about big businesses having too much power.

I’m not against large companies, per se. But I don’t want bigger firms to gain an advantage over small companies by getting in bed with government.

If we want fair and honest competition, we need separation of business and state. No bailouts, no cronyism, no subsidies, and no favoritism.

That’s the part folks on the left don’t understand.

P.S. If you want more information on the economic damage caused by bailouts, watch this video and this video.

P.P.S. Speaking of videos, here’s some satire about the toys that politicians get for their children.

P.P.P.S. I wish this was satire, but American taxpayers are helping to underwrite cronyism in other countries.

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Like many supporters of individual liberty, I’m an anti-majoritarian. I don’t want my freedom to be at the mercy of 51 percent of the population. For all intents and purposes, I want the Supreme Court to protect the country from democracy.

So, based solely on the title, I was automatically disposed to like 10% Less Democracy, a book authored by Professor Garett Jones of George Mason University.

But Garett’s book isn’t a manifesto about the American Constitution and its (sadly neglected) provisions designed to protect economic liberty. It doesn’t even mention my favorite part, Article 1, Section 8, which lists the few and limited powers of the central government.

Instead, his book focuses on a different topic. He’s arguing that we will get better outcomes if ordinary people have less influence on public policy.

And he’s not subtle about that point. The full title of his book is 10% Less Democracy: Why you should trust elites a little more and the masses a little less.

All of a sudden, I was less instinctively favorable to the book.

Simply stated, there are too many cases where the elite tends to be on the wrong side.

When someone says we should trust the elite, I envision people like Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg deciding everything from how much tax we pay to what food we’re allowed to eat.

To be sure, people like that would produce a much better outcome when compared to having a lunatic like Bernie Sanders in charge of the government, but I’d like to have a government filled with people who are more likely to leave me alone, such as Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland, and Ronald Reagan.

But you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. And that means you shouldn’t judge it by its subtitle, either.

So I took the bold step of actually reading the book (unlike, for instance, when I wrote about Nancy MacLean’s smear job against James Buchanan).

And I liked it. A lot. It’s well written, avoids needless jargon (you don’t need to be a trained economist to understand his points), and touches on many important issues.

And Garett does a great job of dispassionately providing evidence. So even when he made points that rubbed me the wrong way, I was forced to wonder whether I was thinking with my heart rather than my head.

Here’s a small sampling of why you should buy – and read – the book.

In Chapter 1, you’ll learn that there’s very little evidence that democracies produce better economic results, but you will learn that they’re less likely to produce famine and mass killings.

In Chapter 2, you’ll learn how Congress is a “favor factory” and read Garett’s hypothesis that politicians will be more likely to support good policies such as free trade if they have longer terms.

In Chapter 3, you’ll learn that independent central banks work better (yes, feel free to criticize the Federal Reserve, but nations such as Argentina show it’s always possible to get worse outcomes).

In Chapter 4, you’ll learn from state evidence that independent judges also generate better results, at least when compared to judges that are directly elected by voters.

In Chapter 5, you’ll learn that not all voters are created equal.

In Chapter 6, you’ll learn that public policy might improve if bondholders had a bigger say in government policy, an insight from Alexander Hamilton.

In Chapter 7, you’ll learn some “public choice” insights about getting things done in Washington (whether that’s a good idea is an entirely different discussion).

In Chapter 8, you’ll learn that joining the anti-democratic European Union is the right choice for some nations, but also that the United Kingdom had good reasons for Brexit.

In Chapter 9, you’ll learn how Singapore is a huge success story with “50% less democracy.”

Garett concludes with some analysis on how to get the right amount of democracy.

His basic hypothesis is that we have too much input from the masses and he even put together his own version of the Laffer Curve to show that we would get better outcomes with less democracy.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that you want to be at the peak of Garett’s Laffer Curve.

With the original Laffer Curve, however, that’s not the right outcome.

P.S. Garett’s book does suffer from one sin of omission. I would have appreciated a chapter on the anomaly of Switzerland. It’s a very successful, very well-governed nation, yet it has an extremely high level of not just democracy, but direct democracy. Voters directly decide all sorts of major policy issues.

Is Switzerland an exception to the rule? Are Swiss people simply more rational than their neighbors? Does the country’s federalism-based model lead to better choices? It would be fascinating to get Garett’s insights.

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A couple of weeks ago, I debunked a remarkably anti-empirical column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post.

He claimed that America’s response to the coronavirus was hampered because government is too small, yet the nations he cited as successful role models actually have much smaller public sectors than the United States.

I congratulated him for accidentally making a strong case for libertarianism and providing evidence for my Seventh Theorem of Government.

Unfortunately, other journalists share Mr. Milbank’s ignorance with regards to easily accessible data on fiscal policy.

Writing for the Atlantic, George Packer asserts that the U.S. response to the coronavirus has been a miserable failure because government is too small.

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. …a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. …tests for the virus were almost impossible to find… years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation.

Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review takes apart Packer’s column.

He points out that CDC funding has increased, while also noting that the bureaucracy has squandered the additional money it has received.

…the CDC’s funding has increased — not that it has made good use of the extra money. This is not a lean and mean virus-fighting machine, getting by on starvation-level resources. It maintains a Hollywood liaison to consult on films. In recent years, it has expanded beyond its core mission to promote motorcycle safety and sponsor programs dedicated to fostering “safe, stable, nurturing relationships” in schools. If you’re wondering why there was lots of political and social messaging larding up CDC documents on COVID-19, just realize that when Congress increases an agency’s funding, the result is likely to be more ideological make-work jobs rather than a more effective workforce. …as for public-sector health-care spending, ours is not notably low — it’s roughly equivalent to those of the developed nations of Western Europe.

And he also observes that nations with smaller governments have done a better job than countries with bigger governments.

…The East Asian states that have done best in fighting COVID-19 are not social-democratic but hyper-capitalist. Compared with them — and to America —Western Europe has done much worse at containing the spread of the coronavirus and the holding down the death toll.

Excellent points.

For my contribution to this debate, I’m going to investigate whether Mr. Packer is right about “steady defunding” of the federal government.

To see whether he is correct about “programs defunded,” I went to Table 1.3 of the Historical Tables of the Budget and created the following chart to see what happened to inflation-adjusted spending over the past 40 years.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Mr. Packer is completely wrong. There hasn’t been any defunding. Not even close.

Instead, the inflation-adjusted burden of government is almost three times greater today than it was the year Reagan was elected (and it will be more than three times greater once all the emergency spending is included).

The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.

P.S. There were periods when spending grew faster than at other times. There were also times when the private sector grew faster than the government (fulfilling the Golden Rule). And we also can see the how government exploded because of TARP and Obama’s faux stimulus and then was briefly constrained during the Tea Party era (and is now climbing rapidly under Trump).

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The international bureaucracy is the “Johnny Appleseed” of moral hazard, using bailouts to reward profligate governments and imprudent lenders.

The IMF also is infamous for encouraging higher tax burdens, which is especially outrageous since its cossetted employees are exempt from paying tax on their lavish salaries.

In recent years, the IMF has been using inequality as a justification for statist policies. Most recently, the lead bureaucrat at the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, cited that issue as a reason for governments to impose higher taxes to fund bigger welfare states.

…inequality has become one of the most complex and vexing challenges in the global economy. Inequality of opportunity. Inequality across generations. Inequality between women and men. And, of course, inequality of income and wealth. …The good news is we have tools to address these issues… Progressive taxation is a key component of effective fiscal policy. At the top of the income distribution, our research shows that marginal tax rates can be raised without sacrificing economic growth. …Gender budgeting is another valuable fiscal tool in the fight to reduce inequality…. The ability to scale up social spending is also essential… A cornerstone of our approach to issues of economic inclusion is our social spending strategy.

What’s especially remarkable is that the IMF has claimed that the punitive policies actually will lead to more growth, in stark contrast to honest people on the left who have always acknowledged the equity-efficiency tradeoff.

The economics editor at the left-leaning Guardian, Larry Elliott, is predictably delighted with the IMF’s embrace of Greek-style fiscal policy.

Raising income tax on the wealthy will help close the growing gap between rich and poor and can be done without harming growth, the head of the International Monetary Fund has said. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said higher marginal tax rates for the better off were needed as part of a policy rethink to tackle inequality. …The IMF managing director, who succeeded Christine Lagarde last year, said higher taxes on the better off…would help fund government spending to expand opportunities for those “communities and individuals that have been falling behind.” …Georgieva said the IMF recognised that social spending policies are increasingly relevant in tackling inequality. …She added that many less well-off countries needed to scale up social spending.

Ironically, the IMF actually has admitted that this approach is bad for prosperity.

It has produced research on something called “equally distributed equivalent income” to justify lower levels of income so long as economic misery is broadly shared.

I’m not joking. You can click here to see another example of the IMF embracing poverty if it means the rich disproportionately suffer.

In other words, negative-sum economics. Though Margaret Thatcher was more eloquent in her description of this awful ideology.

At first, this column was going to be a run-of-the-mill anti-IMF diatribe.

But as I contemplated how the people fixated on inequality are willing to treat the poor like sacrificial lambs, it occurred to me that this is a perfect opportunity to unveil my Eighth Theorem of Government.

P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.

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Nine days ago, I wrote about Dana Milbank scoring an “own goal” because he claimed we needed bigger government to deal with coronavirus, yet all the nations he cited for their effective responses actually have a much smaller fiscal burden than the United States.

Today, we have the Twitter equivalent of an “own goal.”

R.D. Hale, a British guy from the #SocialistCampaignGroup tweeted that he wants to move to an island and start a new country with Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good idea. I certainly wouldn’t be upset if hard-core leftists decided to leave the United States (there’s even a satirical version of this idea).

But Tom Harwood, as you can see, had a response that was far more clever.

Ouch! I don’t know if “own goal” does this justice. This is a brutal dunk by Harwood on Hale.

Especially since both Sanders and Corbyn actually have offered praise for Castro and Cuba.

The bottom line is that the utter misery and deprivation of the Cuban people is a pretty good indication of what would happen if lunatics like Sanders and Corbyn ever had free rein to impose their policies in the U.S. or U.K.

P.S. Here’s the best counter-tweet of 2019.

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Welcome, Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn

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About three weeks ago, I unveiled the “Seventh Theorem of Government” to support the libertarian proposition that a smaller government will do a better job of fulfilling its legitimate responsibilities.

This should not be a controversial concept. There’s plenty of empirical data as well as academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

Many people in the D.C. bubble obviously disagree.

In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank tries to make the argument that the fight against coronavirus has been hampered by inadequate government.

…then came the tea party, the anti-government conservatism that infected the Republican Party in 2010 and triumphed with President Trump’s election. …What you see today is your government…a government that couldn’t produce a rudimentary test for coronavirus, that couldn’t contain the pandemic as other countries have done… Now it is time to drown this disastrous philosophy in the bathtub — and with it the poisonous attitude that the government is a harmful “beast” that must be “starved.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this ideology caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government. …Americans are paying for this with their lives — and their livelihoods.

There are some glaring inaccuracies in Milbank’s column, starting with the absurd notion that big-spender Trump (he increased domestic spending at a faster pace than Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama) is somehow connected to the principles that animated the Tea Party.

More relevant, he wants readers to believe that anti-government activism somehow blocked the production of a “rudimentary test” for the virus, yet I’ve repeatedly documented that the actual problem has been mindless red tape from bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Speaking of which, Chris Edwards has rigorously debunked the notion that those bureaucracies, along with the National Institutes of Health, somehow have been starved of resources.

Here’s his chart showing funding for NIH and CDC

And here’s his chart showing the number of bureaucrats at the NIH, FDA, and CDC.

And what have we gotten in exchange for more bureaucrats and bigger budgets?

As already noted, we got inefficient bureaucracies that have put Americans at risk by hindering and delaying tests, equipment, and treatments.

Now let’s address the part of Milbank’s column that is a classic example of what’s called an “own goal” in soccer. He wants to make the case that bigger government is more effective government, but look at the examples he cites.

If the United States had more public health capacity, it “absolutely” would have been on par with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which have far fewer cases, Auerbach said. South Korea has had 4 deaths per 1 million people, Singapore 1 death per million, and Taiwan 0.2 deaths per million. The United States: 39 per million — and rising fast.

What do we know about Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan?

Well, as I noted in November of 2018, they all have a smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Significantly smaller.

I’m embarrassed for Mr. Milbank, for the obvious reason that it is personally humiliating to score an “own goal.”

But I’m also embarrassed for myself. I repeatedly try to make the argument for limited government, but Milbank’s accidental case for libertarianism may be more persuasive than anything I’ve ever written.

P.S. On a related note, check out the concept of “state capacity libertarianism.”

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared headlines and tweets to illustrate how bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Time to beat that dead horse one more time.

But not just for the sake of mocking the clowns in Washington. I want to help people understand that we would get better outcomes with a slimmed-down public sector that focused on genuine governmental responsibilities.

Before providing a comprehensive collection of headlines and tweets, please read these excerpts from a searing indictment of the federal government’s incompetence, written by Stephen Pimentel for Palladium.

The FDA’s poor performance has little to do with insufficient budgets… The countries with the most effective responses… Taiwan, for example, has relied on a decentralized set of quickly developed digital tools, coordinated by its DIGI+ digital ministry but developed on the fly by private citizens. ….None of these countries allowed their equivalents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block virus-testing and the production of masks. In the U.S., the FDA possesses exclusive authority to approve tests once the Department of Health and Human Services declares a Public Health Emergency, which it did on January 31, 2020. The FDA proceeded to grant such approval only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In February, the CDC developed a test on its own and distributed it to state labs. But the test kits had a bad reagent and did not work. During the entire month of February, as the virus continued to spread, the FDA granted no private lab approval to test. The first approval for a private lab was only issued on March 2, 2020. …Why have common surgical masks (and not only the higher-grade N95 masks) run short during the pandemic? Surely they are easy to produce. The answer is that, while they are physically easy to produce, the FDA treats them as regulated medical devices and requires extensive risk analysis and testing before they can be legally sold, making them difficult and time-consuming for a company to legally bring to market. …The American institutions charged with protecting public health are embedded in a bureaucratic culture that values turf-centered gatekeeping and control over effectiveness and outcome.

Now for our collection of headlines and tweets.

And we’ll start with the one that carries the main message of today’s column.

And why are people needlessly suffering? And even dying?

Well, feel free to click on any of these stories and tweets to access the underlying information.

While the FDA and CDC deserve plenty of scorn and criticism, Let’s not forget that states augment the damage of big government thanks to misguided “certificate of need” laws that restrict the capacity of the health sector, as well as laws against so-called price gouging.

The same problem exists to varying degrees in other nations, and also with international bureaucracies.

So what’s today’s message? Here’s a blunt headline that applies to national red tape, local red tape, and global red tape.

That lesson is captured by this image from the Atlas Society.

Once again, we have an answer to the question first asked back in 2009.

P.S. The bad news shared above doesn’t even count the deadly impact of the FDA’s lengthy and expensive process for approving new drugs.

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The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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The crowd in Washington has responded to the coronavirus crisis with an orgy of borrowing and spending.

The good news is that the legislation isn’t based on the failed notion of Keynesian economics (i.e., the belief that you get more prosperity when the government borrows money from the economy’s left pocket and then puts it in the economy’s right pocket).

Instead, it is vaguely based on the idea of government acting as an insurer for unforeseen loss of income.

Not ideal from a libertarian perspective, of course, but we can at least hope it might be somewhat successful in easing temporary hardship and averting bankruptcies of otherwise viable businesses.

The bad news is that the legislation is filled with corrupt handouts and favors for the friends and cronies of politicians. Simply stated, they have not “let a crisis go to waste.”

The worst news, however, is that politicians have plenty of additional ideas for how to exploit the crisis.

An especially awful idea for so-called stimulus comes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to restore (retroactively!) the full federal deduction for state and local tax payments.

Pelosi suggested that reversing the tax law’s $10,000 cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction… The cap on the SALT deduction has been strongly disliked by politicians in high-tax, Democratic-leaning states such as New York, New Jersey and California… But most Republicans support the SALT deduction cap, arguing that it helps to prevent the tax code from subsidizing higher state taxes.

I’ve written many times on this issue and explained why curtailing that deduction (which basically existed to subsidize the profligacy of high-tax states) was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform.

Needless to say, it would be a horrible mistake to reverse that much-needed change.

The Wall Street Journal agrees, opining on Pelosi’s proposal to subsidize high tax states.

Democrats are far from finished using the crisis to try to force through partisan priorities they couldn’t pass in normal times. Mrs. Pelosi is now hinting the price for further economic relief may include expanding a regressive tax deduction for high-earners in states run by Democrats. …In the 2017 tax reform, Republicans limited the state and local tax deduction to $10,000. …Democrats have been trying to repeal the SALT cap since tax reform passed. …Blowing up the state and local tax deduction would…also make it easier for poorly governed states to rely on soaking their high earners through capital-gains and income taxes, because the federal deduction would ease the burden. …Mrs. Pelosi’s remarks underscore the potential for further political mischief and long-term damage as the government intervenes… When Democrats next complain that Republicans want to cut taxes “for the rich,” remember that Mrs. Pelosi wants to cut them too—but mainly for the progressive rich in Democratic states.

Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget also denounced the idea.

This is not the time to load up emergency packages with giveaways that waste billions of taxpayer dollars… Weakening or eliminating the SALT cap would be regressive, expensive, poorly targeted, and precisely the kind of political giveaway that compromises the credibility of emergency spending. …Retroactively repealing the SALT caps for the last two years would mean sending a check of $100,000 to the household making over $1 million per year, and less than $100 for the average household making less than $100,000 per year. …During this crisis, the Committee implores special interest lobbyists to stand down and lawmakers to put self-serving politics aside.

By the way, I care about whether a change in tax policy will make the country more prosperous in the long run and don’t fixate on whether the change helps or hurts any particular income group. So Maya’s point about the rich getting almost all the benefits is not what motivates me to oppose Pelosi’s proposal.

That being said, it is remarkable that she is pushing a change that overwhelmingly benefits the very richest people in the nation.

The obvious message is that it’s okay to help the rich when a) those rich people live in places such as California, and b) helping the rich also makes it easier for states to impose bad fiscal policy.

Which is why she was pushing her bad idea before the coronavirus ever became an issue. Indeed, House Democrats even passed legislation in 2019 to restore the loophole.

Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern University Law School wrote early last year why the deduction was misguided and why the provision to restrict the deduction was the best provision of the 2017 tax law.

…the best feature of the Trump tax cuts was the $10,000 cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes. It advanced one of the Constitution’s most important structures for good government—competitive federalism. Deductibility of state taxes deadens that competition, because it allows states to slough off some of the costs of taxation to citizens in other states. Moreover, it allows states to avoid accountability for the taxes they impose. Given high federal tax rates in some brackets, high income tax payers end up paying only about sixty percent of the actual tax imposed. The federal government and thereby other tax payers effectively pick up the rest of the tab. …the ceiling makes some taxpayers pay more, but its dynamic effect is to make it less likely that state and local taxes, particularly highly visible state income taxes, will be raised and more likely that they will be cut.

For what it’s worth, I think the lower corporate tax rate was the best provision of the 2017 reform, but McGinnis makes a strong case.

Perhaps the best evidence for this change comes from the behavior of politicians from high-tax states.

Here are some excerpts from a Wall Street Journal editorial from early last year.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo…is blaming the state’s $2.3 billion budget shortfall on a political party that doesn’t run the place. He says the state is suffering from declining tax receipts because the GOP Congress as part of tax reform in 2017 limited the state-and-local tax deduction to $10,000. …the once unlimited deduction allowed those in high tax climes to mitigate the pain of state taxes. It amounted to a subsidy for progressive policies. …The real problem is New York’s punitive tax rates, which Mr. Cuomo and his party could fix. “People are mobile,” Mr. Cuomo said this week. “And they will go to a better tax environment. That is not a hypothesis. That is a fact.” Maybe Mr. Cuomo should stay in Albany and do something about that reality.

Amen.

The federal tax code should not subsidize politicians from high-tax states. Nor should it subsidize rich people who live in high-tax states.

If Governor Cuomo is worried about rich people moving to Florida (and he should be), he should lower tax rates and make government more efficient.

I’ll close with the observation that the state and local tax deduction created the fiscal version of a third-party payer problem. It reduced the perceived cost of state and local government, which made it easier for politicians to increase taxes (much as government subsidies for healthcare and higher education have made it easier for hospitals and colleges to increase prices).

P.S. Speaking of fake stimulus, there’s also plenty of discussion on Capitol Hill (especially given Trump’s weakness on the issue) about squandering a couple of trillion dollars on infrastructure, even though such spending a) should not be financed at the federal level, b) would not have any immediate impact on jobs, and c) would be a vehicle for giveaways such as mass transit boondoggles.

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I wrote about “Coronavirus and Big Government” on March 22 and then followed up on March 27 with “Coronavirus and Big Government, Part II.”

Now it’s time for the third installment, and we’ll start with this hard-hitting video from Reason, which shows how red tape has hindered the development and deployment of testing in the United States.

Next, here are a bunch of stories and tweets about the deadly impact of bureaucracy and regulation.

As with the Part I and Part II, feel free to click on any of the stories for the details.

By the way, the problem of excessive government exists in other nations.

Here are two tweets about the situation in the United Kingdom.

The first one deals with having to get government approval for medical devices.

The second one deals with how politicians and bureaucrats have misallocated public health resources – similarly to some of the foolish misadventures of the FDA and CDC (and let’s not forget the World Health Organization).

I’ll close with another story from the United States.

This report from Reason is especially useful because it contains a 30-minute interview with Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. So if you liked the short video at the start of this column, you’ll definitely want to click through and watch this video.

The message here isn’t that government shouldn’t exist. As I wrote earlier this month, collective action is appropriate to protect life, liberty, and property. Needless to say, that libertarian principle applies during a pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean government should be micro-managing everything.

In normal times, excessive regulation is a costly nuisance because things cost more and take longer.

In a crisis, however, that means needless death and suffering. Which is exactly what’s happening today.

Let’s hope the folks in Washington learn from this awful experience.

P.S. Another lesson to be learned is the Seventh Theorem of Government.

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Motivated in part by a sensible desire for free trade, six nations from Western Europe signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community (EEC). Sort of a European version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (now known as USMCA).

Some supporters of the EEC also were motivated by a desire for some form of political unification and their efforts eventually led to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union – along with increased powers for a Brussels-based bureaucracy (the European Commission).

There are significant reasons to think that this evolution – from a Europe based on free trade and mutual recognition to a Europe based on supranational governance – was an unfortunate development.

Back in 2015, I warned that this system would “morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.”

A few years earlier, when many of Europe’s welfare states were dealing with a fiscal crisis, I specifically explained why it would be a very bad idea to have “eurobonds,” which would mean – for all intents and purposes – that reasonably well governed nations such as Germany and Sweden would be co-signing loans for poorly governed countries such as Italy and Greece.

Well, this bad idea has resurfaced. Politicians from several European nations are using the coronavirus as an excuse (“never let a crisis go to waste“) to push for a so-called common debt instrument.

Here are the relevant parts of the letter.

…we need to work on a common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market on the same basis and to the benefits of all Member States, thus ensuring stable long term financing… The case for such a common instrument is strong, since we are all facing a symmetric external shock, for which no country bears responsibility, but whose negative consequences are endured by all. And we are collectively accountable for an effective and united European response. This common debt instrument should have sufficient size and long maturity to be fully efficient… The funds collected will be targeted to finance in all Member States the necessary investments in the healthcare system and temporary policies to protect our economies and social model.

Lots of aspirational language, of course, but no flowery words change the fact that “collectively accountable” means European-wide debt and “social model” means welfare state.

I wrote last year that globalization is good whereas global governance is bad. Well, this is the European version.

The Wall Street Journal opined against the concept. Here’s some background information.

Bad crises tend to produce worse policy… We speak of proposals for “corona bonds,” an idea floated as a fiscal solution to Europe’s deepening pandemic. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte launched the effort, and French President Emmanuel Macron this week joined Mr. Conte and seven other leaders in backing such a bond issue for health-care expenditures and economic recovery. Some 400 economists have joined the chorus. …The bonds would be backed collectively by member governments. The proceeds could be allocated to members such as Italy that otherwise couldn’t borrow from private markets. …Calls for euro bonds last hit a crescendo during the debt crises of 2010-12, when they were pitched to fund bailouts of Greece and others. But the idea has never gone anywhere because it would transform the eurozone into something voters didn’t approve when the currency was created in the 1990s.

And here’s the editorial’s explanation of why eurobonds would be a very bad idea.

Europeans were promised the euro would not become an excuse or vehicle for large fiscal transfers between member states. …Proponents say corona bonds are a special case due to the unfolding economic emergency. But the Italian government that now can’t finance its own recovery was also one of the worst fiscal offenders before Covid-19… Claims that the corona bond would be temporary aren’t credible because European elites have wanted such a facility for years… Voters can assume that if they get these bonds in a crisis, they’ll be stuck with this facility forever. …euro bonds would create profound governance problems. …With corona bonds, German and Dutch taxpayers for the first time are being asked to write a blank check to Italy and perhaps others.

Amen.

Once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it would simply be a matter of time before eurobonds would become a vehicle for bigger government in general and more country-to-country transfers in particular.

Hopefully this terrible idea will be blocked by nations such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands (this satirical video will give you an idea of the tension between the European nations that foot the bills and the ones looking for handouts).

Some advocates for eurobonds say there’s nothing to worry about since the European Commission and related pan-European bureaucracies currently don’t spend much money, at least when measured as a share of overall economic output.

Which is why I sometimes warn my European friends that the United States is an example of why they should be vigilant.

For much of American history, the central government in Washington was very small, as envisioned by the Founders. But beginning with the so-called Progressive Era and then dramatically accelerating under the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt, the federal government has expanded dramatically in both size and scope.

The lesson to be learned is that more centralization is a very bad idea, particularly if that centralized form of government gains fiscal power.

That’s especially true for Europe since the burden of government spending at the national level already is excessive. Eurobonds would exacerbate the damage by creating a new European-wide method of spending money.

P.S. While eurobonds are a very bad idea, it would be even worse (akin to the U.S. approving the 16th Amendment) if the European Union somehow got the authority to directly impose taxes.

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Five days ago, I wrote “Coronavirus and Big Government” to highlight how sloth-like bureaucracy and stifling red tape deserve much of the blame for America’s slow response to the crisis.

And I started that column by sharing four points from a previous column on “Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism.” I’ll start today’s column by repeating the final observation.

4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Here’s a video from John Stossel documenting the federal government’s clumsy incompetence.

And here are a bunch of stories and tweets that provide additional elaboration.

Feel free to click on the underlying stories if you want to get even angrier about the deadly impact of big government.

The silver lining to all the bad news is that politicians and bureaucrats have been relaxing regulatory barriers.

But will they learn the right lesson and permanently repeal government-created barriers that hinder the provision of health care?

Is it true, as Robert Tracinski wrote for the Bulwark, that “We’re All Libertarians now”?

This talking point has since been taken up by others in a more technically accurate form: there are no libertarians in a pandemic. The idea is that when a crisis hits, everyone suddenly realizes how much they need Big Government. This is a bizarre argument to make about a virus that got a foothold partly because of the corrupt and tyrannical policies of a communist government in China. The outbreak is currently at its worst in Italy, where socialized medicine has not turned out to be a panacea. And it was allowed to get out of control in America because the feds imposed an incompetent government monopoly on COVID-19 testing, blocking the use of better and faster tests developed by private companies. …There has been a surge of emergency deregulation to lift artificial barriers that prevent people from solving problems. …the loosening of federal controls on the private development of diagnostic testing, after the disastrous attempt to centralize it all at the CDC. We’re also seeing the suspension of restrictive licensing requirements on doctors and nurses to allow them to work across state lines, so they can go where the shortages are worst. There has also been a whole series of waivers on restrictions on the transportation and serving of food and beverages in order to help restaurants stay in business and feed their customers by offering curb-side service.

Needless to say, I hope Tracinski is right.

But I worry that the net result of this crisis is that we’ll have more red tape and the CDC and FDA will have bigger budgets.

If you think I’m being too pessimistic, just remember that the Department of Veterans Affairs was rewarded with more money after letting veterans die on secret waiting lists, the IRS was rewarded with more money after persecuting Tea Party groups to help Obama’s political prospects, and the education monopoly endlessly gets rewarded with more money even though student outcomes stagnate or deteriorate.

All as predicted by the First Theorem of Government.

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I’m not an optimist about Europe’s economic future.

Most nations have excessive welfare states and punitive taxes, which is hardly good news. You then have to consider demographic trends such as aging populations (i.e., more people relying on government) and falling birthrates (i.e., fewer future taxpayers).

That’s a very grim combination.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I favored Brexit. Yes, it was largely about escaping an increasingly dirigiste European bureaucracy in Brussels, but it was also about not being chained to a continent with a dismal long-run outlook.

More than one year ago, before there were any concerns about a coronavirus-instigated economic crisis, Vijay Victor, an economist from Szent Istvan University in Hungary, expressed concern about Europe’s fiscal future in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The debt crisis in the Eurozone is getting no better, even in the wake of the new year. The five countries in the Eurozone with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the third quarter of 2018 were Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. The total debt of Greece is around 182.2 percent of its GDP and that of Italy is 133 percent… Dawdling economic growth coupled with low-yield investment options are dragging these indebted economies toward insolvency… Unemployment rates, for example, are still very high in most of these highly indebted European economies. Despite the recurrent monetary assistance and policy support, job creation is weak, which might imply that the debt financing is channelized in a nonproductive direction.

By the way, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to remind people that debt is a problem, but it also should be viewed as a symptom of en even-bigger problem, which is an excessive burden of government spending.

A bloated welfare state is a drag on economic performance, whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Though nations that try to finance big government with red ink eventually spend their way into crisis (as defined by potential default).

And we may be reaching that point.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise has authored a very grim assessment, focusing primarily on Italy, for the National Interest.

Today, with Italy at the epicenter of the world coronavirus epidemic, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the durability of the Euro is again tested by another full-blown Italian sovereign debt crisis. …even before the coronavirus epidemic struck its economy was weak while its public finances and banking system were in a state of poor health. After having experienced virtually no economic growth over the past decade, the Italian economy again entered into a recession by end-2019. At the same time, at 135 percent its public debt to GDP ratio was higher than it was in 2012 while its banks’ balance sheets remained clogged with non-performing loans and Italian government bonds. …the coronavirus epidemic will seriously damage both Italy’s public finances and its banking system…by throwing the country into its deepest economic recession in the post-war period. That in turn is bound to cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon and its banking system’s non-performing loans to skyrocket as more of its households and companies file for bankruptcy. …all too likely that the Italian economy will shrink by at least 10 percent in 2020.

All this matters because the people and institutions that purchase government debt may decide that Italy’s outlook is so grim that they will be very reluctant to buy the country’s bonds (i.e., they’ll be very hesitant about lending money to the Italian government because of a concern that they won’t get paid back).

This means that the Italian government will have to pay much higher interest rates in order to compensate lenders for the risk of a potential default.

So what are the implications? Will Italy default, or will there be some sort of bailout?

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

One way to gauge the amount of public money that might be needed to prop up Italy is to consider that over the past decade it took around US$300 billion in official support to keep Greece in the Euro. Given that the Italian economy is around ten times the size of that of Greece, this would suggest that Italy might very well need around $3 trillion in official support to keep Italy in the Euro. …Meanwhile, Italy’s US$4 trillion banking system could very well need at least US$1 trillion in official support to counter the capital flight and the spike in non-performing loans that are all too likely to occur in the event of a deep Italian recession.

For what it’s worth, Lachman thinks a bailout would be desirable.

I disagree. Default is a better choice because it will discipline the Italian government (it would mean an overnight balanced budget requirement since nobody will lend money to the government) and also discipline foolish lenders who thought Italian politicians were a good bet.

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

I also think it’s worth noting that Italy isn’t the only government at risk of fiscal crisis. Here’s the OECD data for major nations, including a few non-European examples.

Japan wins the prize for the most red ink, though this doesn’t mean Japan is most vulnerable to a default, at least in the short run.

A fiscal crisis is driven by investor sentiment (i.e., when will people and institutions decide they no longer trust a government to pay back loans). And that depends on a range of factors, including trust.

The bottom line is that investors trust the Japanese government and they don’t trust the Italian government.

That being said, I think all of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are very vulnerable.

And politicians in Ireland, Belgium, and France should be nervous as well.

I’ll close by sharing some calculations, based on the aforementioned OECD data, showing which nations used last decade’s economic recovery to improve their balance sheets.

Congratulations to Germany and Switzerland for fiscal responsibility, and mild applause for the Netherlands and Sweden.

I’ve highlighted (in red) the nations that were most reckless.

Though keep in mind that you want to look at both the trend for debt (far-right column) and the existing level of debt (the next-to-far-right column). So I’m not overly worried about Australia. Debt is still comparatively low, even though it almost doubled last decade.

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

So if economic conditions deteriorate in Europe, the fallout could be significant.

P.S. The United Kingdom, like Japan, benefits from a high level of trust – presumably in part because the country paid off enormous debts from the Napoleonic wars and World War II. That being said, the numbers for the U.K. are worrisome, which hopefully will lead to a renewed commitment to spending restraint by Boris Johnson’s government.

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I wrote yesterday how cumbersome bureaucracies and foolish regulations have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

This isn’t because governments are run by bad people. Some of them probably are that way, of course, but the real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats are dealing with a perverse incentive system.

They’re largely motivated by power, money, publicity, staffing, and votes.

And that leads to some very unfortunate outcomes, as Betsy McCaughey explained in her syndicated column.

Landing in the hospital on a ventilator is bad. But worse is being told you can’t have one. …learning that the state’s stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to a fork in the road in 2015. He could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner, Howard Zucker to assemble a task force and draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had. …Cuomo could have purchased the additional 16,000 needed ventilators for $36,000 apiece or a total of $576 million in 2015. It’s a lot of money but less than the $750 million he threw away on a boondoggle “Buffalo Billion” solar panel factory.

For what it’s worth, I’m not blaming Governor Cuomo for a failure to buy more ventilators.

In the same situation, I also may have decided that it wasn’t wise to spend $576 million for an event that most people thought was very unlikely.

But I am blaming him for supporting ever-bigger government in New York and getting ever-more involved in things that aren’t legitimate functions of a state government.

That applies to the solar factory mentioned in the article, and it also applies to other vote-buying schemes such as mass transit boondoggles, expanded rent control, and anti-gun snitch lines.

And when he expands the size and scope of state government, he increases the likelihood that there won’t be the energy, expertise, or resources to address problems where government should play a role.

Such as dealing with a pandemic.

Which motivates me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

In addition to the example of Cuomo and ventilators, there’s also a story from Belgium that underscores how bloated governments are less capable.

But I’ll close by noting the Seventh Theorem is not driven by anecdotes. There’s plenty of academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

P.S. As suggested by proponents of “state capacity libertarianism,” there is a possible exception to the Seventh Theorem.

Some of the world’s poorest nations have small public sectors – at least according to official measurements. It’s certainly possible, at least in theory, that such countries would benefit if they had larger governments that were capable of providing core public goods.

Indeed, international bureaucracies commonly argue that these countries should increase their tax burdens to provide “financing for development.”

However, the real problem in such nations is rampant corruption, low societal capital, and inadequate rule of law. Which is why it’s not a good idea to generate more money for politicians in those countries.

P.P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.

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When the current health crisis heated up, I wrote a column on “Government, Coronavirus, and Libertarianism” and made four simple points.

  1. Libertarians believe government should protect life, liberty, and property
  2. Libertarians correctly warn that a big sprawling federal government means it is less capable of handling the few things it should be doing
  3. Other government-run health systems have not done a good job
  4. The federal government has hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Today, I want to elaborate on point #4 by highlighting an avalanche of reports on how bureaucracy and red tape have been endangering our health.

Readers are welcome to click on some or all of the stories and tweets to learn more about how we’re at risk because of clumsy and inefficient government. Though if you’re pressed for time, this first story is the one to read.

And here are many more reports that confirm how government has largely been the source of problems rather than a solution.

For what it’s worth, the stories I shared above are just a small sampling. I could have shared dozens of additional reports.

But rather than beat a dead horse, let’s focus on the key takeaway from this tragedy. David Harsanyi of National Review nicely summarizes the lessons we should be learning.

…the coronavirus crisis has only strengthened my belief in limited-government conservatism — classical liberalism, libertarianism, whatever you want to call it. Years of government spending and expanding regulation have done nothing to make us safer during this emergency; in fact, our profligate spending during years of prosperity has probably constrained our ability to borrow now. …government does far too much of what it shouldn’t, and is far too incompetent at doing what it should. The CDC, an agency specifically created to prevent the spread of dangerous communicable diseases, has failed. Almost everyone would agree that its core mission should be under the bailiwick of government. Yet, for the past 40 years, its mission kept expanding as it spent billions of dollars and tons of manpower worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks and imploring you to do more jumping jacks. …The CDC — and other federal agencies such as the FDA — haven’t just moved too slowly in tapping the expertise of our academic and private sectors to fight COVID-19; they’ve actively impeded such private efforts. …The CDC didn’t merely botch the creation of a COVID-19 test, it failed to turn to private companies that could have created a test faster and better. …I’d simply like government to do much less much better.

David’s final sentence about a government that does less and does it better deserves to be emphasized. Observers ranging from Mark Steyn to Robert Samuelson have pointed out that the federal government is more likely to do a good job if it focuses on core responsibilities. And there’s plenty of academic evidence in support of this position, though this anecdote from Belgium may be even more persuasive.

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